The Soldier lay motionless along the sturdy branch, breathing slowly and evenly, his scope trained on the guards ambling through set patrols. The military base 200 yards away was bordered by forest on one side and a wide, curving river on the other. The Soldier’s breath formed white clouds in the chilly air, but they dissipated before rising above the trees. They wouldn’t give away his position.
The Soldier knew this base; he’d been kept here, stored here. It had been hot, then. He remembered the smell of the river drifting in through open windows. Men in suits using manilla folders to fan their faces. Blood (not his) on a bright blue sparring mat.
On paper, the base was being leased by a multinational corporation using their own private security contractors. In reality, the base was occupied by Hydra. The Soldier had watched for days to confirm it, ignoring the way his body flinched whenever a too-familiar face appeared in his scope and tugged painfully on ragged threads of memory. It was worth it to be certain.
The Soldier was careful. He only acted against Hydra, and he didn’t act until he was sure.
But none of that meant he had to make the fight fair.
The Soldier dropped to the ground once the sun dipped below the horizon. Dusk came early this time of year, this far north. The evening shift change wasn’t for another few hours. His own work would be done by then.
His weapons and equipment were all in place, except for three final pieces. The most important things he saved for last.
First, the mask. He clipped the buckle behind his head, tugging the straps until the seal was airtight. The pressure of the mask always sent his mind sliding for a moment, always pulled him back to when the mask was a muzzle. The Soldier stood absolutely still until the vertigo passed.
Second, the goggles. He threaded the strap carefully under his hair, making sure a lucky grab wouldn’t be enough to unseat them, and toggled between the different modes--blackout, anti-glare, night vision--before setting them to neutral.
Third, the earbuds. These were his newest pieces of equipment, made with his own two hands before his first raid as a free agent. He had spent weeks studying research papers on sound absorption and sourcing the materials before doing the final assembly in the kitchen of his squat house, bent over the counter with the soldering iron dripping into the sink. The Soldier had field tested them in a crowded nightclub, standing inches away from the club’s heaviest speakers, and hadn't been able to pick out a single song lyric from the muffled mass of sound. The earbuds were cool and heavy, their solid weight a reassurance.
The Soldier stalked forward, keeping to the shadows. Ahead of him, unknowing, unseeing, the guards continued their predictable rounds. The base was imposing, seemingly impregnable, but nothing was truly secure. Anything could crack under pressure properly applied. Hydra had taught him that.
There was a special satisfaction in using weapons Hydra had created to dismantle them. The Soldier counted himself chief among those weapons.
“A good dog doesn’t bite the hand that feeds it,” a Handler told him once, just before the pain started.
The Soldier was determined to be a very bad dog.
The Soldier disabled the emergency generator first. A few cut wires, a fuel cap unscrewed, and the machine was transformed from a backup power source to a very expensive hunk of scrap metal.
The base’s main power supply ran through electrical conduits buried in the road. The Soldier had spent the previous night painstakingly tunneling under a section of road until he could wrap a small shaped charge around the electrical conduit pipe. The explosion wouldn’t be large enough to damage the road above, but it would easily sever a bundle of wires the size of a grapefruit.
The Soldier idled in a security camera blind spot, back pressed against cold concrete, and pulled out one earbud. He listened to the background hum of the base behind him and marked the seconds. Three, two, one...
Every light in the base went dark at once. Silence rang out like a bell stroke, sudden and oppressive, as every machine in the base went quiet. A moment later voices started to murmur, sounding first confused, then panicked when the emergency lights failed to switch on. The babble grew louder as personnel started to stream out of the exits.
The Soldier had left enough smoking craters in his wake that most Hydra personnel now responded to an unexpected blackout by getting the fuck out of the building as fast as possible, which the Soldier appreciated. It made gaining entry undetected much easier.
The Soldier scaled the wall he had been leaning against and jimmied open a second-story window, slipping into the base without betraying his position or wasting a single bullet.
Personnel evacuating from the higher levels of the building were stampeding down the stairwells. The second floor was already clear. The Soldier found an unresponsive elevator and pried the doors open, the servos in his left shoulder whirring with the strain. He shimmied up the elevator cable to the top level and pried those doors open as well, feet braced on the elevator shaft wall for leverage. Roof access was obtained with nothing more than a kick to the padlocked ceiling hatch.
On the roof, invisible to the people gathering below, the Soldier assembled his sniper rifle with practiced motions. He propped the edge of his rifle on the corner of the roof and waited.
It was easy to see who held the most power in a crowd of people. The administrative staff, conspicuous in collared shirts and polished shoes, herded together anxiously on the lawn. White coats clustered in twos and threes; scientists from the labs on the lower levels. They were loosely ringed by tense guards. Everyone was waiting for someone to tell them what to do next.
A man walked out of the base’s front doors, and the administrative staff went quiet. The guards and scientists straightened as one. The Soldier took several steadying breaths before looking at the man through his scope. It was Karpov, looking tense and snappish.
Handler, a voice in the Soldier’s head insisted. Do not engage. Obey.
The Soldier told the voice to fuck off and tried to ignore the way his flesh hand was shaking. He adjusted his grip to compensate.
The most senior security officer approached Karpov, his arms moving emphatically as he gestured to a waiting car. An escape route. Karpov wasn’t listening properly, was haranguing one of the scientists instead. Arrogant as always.
The Soldier had more memories of Karpov than any other handler. Most handlers had found the Soldier unsettling, and had avoided spending time in his presence, but not Karpov. Karpov had always been proud of his work.
The Soldier took a slow breath in. He pulled the trigger on the exhale.
The Soldier didn’t move his scope to follow the body as it dropped; he knew a kill shot when he made one. The swell of screams from below cut off abruptly as the Soldier replaced his earbud. He was off the roof and jogging down the staircase seconds later.
Primary objective achieved.
Pursuit of his secondary target took the Soldier to the basement levels. If this facility had wiping equipment, it would be deep underground and close to the main power source. There must have been a Chair when the Soldier was here--Hydra had learned early on not to keep the Asset in any facility that wasn’t equipped to control him--but it might have been moved since. The Chairs were expensive and very difficult to construct and calibrate. It had been easier to transport them than to build them from scratch every time the Soldier was moved to a new outpost.
The Soldier didn’t know this first-hand, since every memory involving the Chair had been smeared into oblivion by the Chair itself, but he had read enough Hydra files by now to have pieced together their protocols for containing and deploying the Asset. The Handlers and the Chairs were the keystones. Every time the Soldier destroyed one or both, his tenuous freedom grew more secure.
The basement levels were utterly dark. It was uncanny to move in perfect silence, his night vision goggles outlining the world in ghostly green, but it made no difference to the Soldier. His sensory deprivation training had been extensive.
The Soldier prowled the edges of the deepest basement level, picking out the most vulnerable load-bearing walls. He unpacked several pounds of C4 and got to work.
The Asset had been a ghost, the only sign of his presence the corpses he left behind. The Soldier, in contrast, was not particularly inclined to be subtle. He rigged the basement with enough explosives to reduce the base to rubble.
There was a sealed room in the middle of the lowest level. The walls were reinforced with steel, and the only door was barred on both sides. The Soldier would have dismissed it as a panic room if not for the huge energy conduits feeding into it.
Whatever was inside would most likely be destroyed along with the rest of the base, but there was the possibility that it could survive, and that could be dangerous. Even if the room didn’t contain a Chair, anything Hydra guarded this closely wasn’t going to be benign.
Besides, the Soldier was curious. Deviating from the mission was an indulgence--but perhaps he could afford indulges now, on these missions with no Handlers and no punishments for dawdling.
He wrenched the HVAC inputs out of the wall and crawled through the gap.
The Soldier had expected a laboratory, or perhaps a server room. Instead the room was nearly empty. There were two glass cubes, about ten feet by ten feet, anchored to the far wall. Each had a person inside.
The figure on the left was lying down in a large chair. They hadn’t stirred at the Soldier’s entrance. The figure on the right was standing and facing forward, alert, no doubt having heard the Soldier crash through the wall. The room was as lightless as the rest of the basement.
The Soldier was intimately familiar with how Hydra contained prisoners. He had no trouble identifying the cubes as cages.
Before he did anything else, the Soldier crossed to the door and unbarred it. Hard experience had taught him to always secure the exit. The figure on the right tracked the sound of the Soldier’s footsteps, edging warily into the middle of the cell.
The Soldier took a chemical glow stick from a belt pouch, broke it, and tossed it onto the floor halfway between the door and the cells. The light from the glow stick grew into a white bonfire on his night vision goggles. He pulled the goggles down to hang around his neck, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dim light.
The boy in the cell on the right squinted into the gloom. His eyes widened and he took several steps back as the glow stick outlined the Soldier standing silently across from him. The Soldier watched the boy’s lips move, but his earbuds blocked out the words. It wasn’t a language the Soldier knew well enough to lip-read.
There were black cuffs attached to the boy’s ankles. They looked solid and seamless, with a row of LED lights on each cuff. The lights were showing green. The Soldier wondered if they were restraints that worked in conjunction with something else. Electromagnetic cuffs for a metal table, possibly. They didn’t seem to affect the boy’s movements.
The boy’s posture went from startled to curious. He took a tiny step forward, his mouth still moving, head slanted. Asking a question.
The Soldier sheathed his knife and waved. Tentatively, the boy waved back.
The cell next to the boy was occupied by an unconscious girl strapped to a padded reclining chair. It wasn’t the Chair, but the situation was similar enough to send echos of bone-deep fear shivering down the Soldier’s spine, to make the Soldier’s flesh hand clench around the grip of his handgun. She and the boy were both wearing institutional blue scrubs and socks with no shoes. An IV line fed into her right arm.
Two captives, restrained and abandoned by the scientists and guards fleeing the base. Valuable enough to keep under lock and key, but not important enough to save. Familiarity was bitter on the Soldier’s tongue.
Logistics cascaded through the Soldier’s mind as the mission switched from infiltrate and sabotage to extract and escape in the blink of an eye.
He approached the girl’s cell and examined the lock. It would be tedious and time-consuming to pick manually. The Soldier focused instead on the cell’s weakest point, the seam where the door met the surrounding wall. He pulled a small titanium pry bar from his belt and went to work.
The door hinges gave way under his inhuman strength. The Soldier pivoted to the side as the door fell outward, letting it crash down to the floor. He stepped forward into the girl’s cell.
The Soldier felt vibrations through the floor as the boy slammed his fist against the glass wall separating the two cells. The boy was shouting something at the Soldier, his face showing fear, outrage, protectiveness. Good. If the two prisoners were allies, it would be easier to get them both clear of the base.
The Soldier’s hand hovered over his right earbud. It was a risk. Hydra had lain traps before, though none quite this subtle, or with bait so finely tuned to the Soldier’s new priorities. Still, the boy might be a plant.
But some risks were worth taking. He pulled the earbud out.
The boy’s shouting resolved into a torrent of Slovak, his threats colorful but undeniably sincere. The Soldier pointed at the girl and interrupted in the same language. “Can you carry her?”
The boy stopped short. “What?”
“Can you carry her out?” The Soldier removed the needle from the girl’s arm, letting whatever had been feeding into her veins drip onto the floor while he applied careful pressure to the crook of her elbow. “If you carry her, I can keep both hands free to fight.”
“Yes. Don’t touch her,” the boy added, glaring. The Soldier felt an unexpected curl of amusement. The boy was still locked in his cell, unarmed and outmatched, but that wasn’t enough to stop him from making demands. Good. Hydra couldn’t have had the boy for very long, if he still had that level of defiance.
The Soldier moved behind the chair to undo the girl’s restraints so the boy could see everything he did. They had similar features. Siblings? Cousins?
It was none of the Soldier’s business, and irrelevant to the mission at hand. The Soldier double-checked that the girl was breathing normally before he moved on to the boy’s cell.
Prying the door off the boy’s cell was the work of a moment. The boy stiffened as the Soldier approached, and the Soldier halted a few feet away. He was acutely aware that he had lost the art of reassurance.
The Soldier pointed at the black cuffs on the boy’s ankles. “Do those have tracking devices?”
“Uh, maybe? They slow me down, I don’t know what else they do.”
“Are they anchored to the bone?”
The boy’s wide eyes darted to the Soldier’s metal arm. “No! They’re not, like, attached.”
Easy enough to deal with. The Soldier knelt in front of the boy, gripped one of the cuffs in his left hand, and squeezed. Metal squealed and bent around his thumb.
“Holy shit!” the boy yelped. He grabbed the Soldier’s shoulder for balance as the Soldier wrenched the bent cuff apart. “Wow, okay. Metal arm. Strong metal arm.”
“Very strong,” the Soldier agreed. He broke the second cuff and tossed them both into a corner of the cell.
“Fucking badass, man,” the boy said, and vanished in a blur of movement too fast for even the Soldier to track. In a heartbeat the Soldier had his handgun in his right hand and a knife in his left. His head snapped up to face the other cell.
The boy was there, was whole and unharmed, had not been snatched by some unseen enemy. He was carefully picking up the girl, curling his arms behind her back and under her knees. The Soldier stood and let his heart rate slow.
The boy grinned at him, smug and adrenaline-fierce. “Very fast.”
Sergeant Barnes would have said something clever back, would have deadpanned fucking badass, man or made another wisecrack. It would have eased the tension and made their shaky alliance a little stronger.
The Soldier could feel the shape of what the Sergeant would have done, but was sure it would come out wrong if he tried it. He didn’t want to try and fail, didn’t want to see disappointment bloom on the boy’s face.
“Stay behind me,” he said instead, and turned away.
The Soldier had mapped six feasible paths out of the base. With two newly-recovered assets in tow, one of them unconscious, that number dropped to one. He led the boy out of the basement and through the sewage tunnels that drained from the base to the river.
The walk through frigid ankle-high water must have been difficult for the boy, hampered as he was by the weight of the girl and his own lack of shoes, but he didn’t complain or fall behind. The Soldier took point, alert to the possibility of tripwires or boobytraps. He found none. Karpov had tried to take refuge in obscurity when the Handlers had realized the Soldier was on the hunt. This base was too old, too out of the way, to have sophisticated security.
Two unlucky guards had been sent to watch the tunnel’s exit. The Soldier raised one hand, signalling for the boy to stop. He drifted silently closer to guards, then made enough of a splash for the two guards to hear it. They edged into position in front of the tunnel, rifles raised high.
The Soldier dropped them with two quick headshots.
Behind him, the boy yelped, staggered backwards into the tunnel wall, and nearly dropped the girl. “Holy shit! Holy shit.”
It occurred to the Soldier that he should have warned the boy, who was clearly a non-combatant, what he was going to do. Too late now. And it was better, perhaps, that the boy knew what the Soldier was from the start.
“Wait there. Count to thirty,” the Soldier told him. That gave the Soldier enough time to drag the bodies of the guards around the side of the tunnel, where the boy wouldn’t have to see them. There was nothing he could do about the blood streaking the gravel embankment of the river.
When he led the boy out of the tunnel, the boy’s eyes followed the smear of red before jerking up to the horizon. “Where are we going?”
“West.” The Soldier gestured the boy to move ahead of him onto the slim forest path, little more than a deer trail, that led to the clearing by the road where the Soldier had left a car. It was only an hour’s drive back to the safe house from there.
But there was one more mission objective to complete. The Soldier pulled the detonator from his vest and stepped in front of the boy and the girl.
“This will be loud,” the Soldier said, distantly proud of himself for remembering to warn the boy this time.
The boy turned to give the Soldier a wary look over his shoulder. “What will be loud?”
The Soldier pressed the detonator. The Hydra base crumpled in on itself in a roar of collapsing concrete, windows shattering outwards in geysers of gray dust. A stray shard of glass sliced across the Soldier’s scalp; damage minimal. Nothing touched the boy or the girl.
When the boy staggered from the force of the shockwave, the Soldier steadied him, briefly taking the girl’s weight. She slept on, deceptively peaceful, while the base shuddered apart behind them.
The drive back to the safe house was quiet. The boy and girl spent the trip lying across the backseat under a tarp. Eventually Hydra would dig through the remains of their base, come up two bodies short, and realize the Soldier had stolen their prisoners, but with any luck by the time that happened all three of them would be long gone.
The Soldier left them waiting in the car while he made a loop around the safehouse, first scaling a nearby building to scout from the roof, then walking the perimeter on foot. The Soldier had chosen a town big enough that strangers were of no interest, but small enough that nighttime activity would stand out. All was peaceful.
The safe house was a narrow brick apartment building left half empty by the latest real estate collapse. Squatters could pay the building manager under the table to rent the vacant floors. The Soldier had bought out the top floor for the remainder of the week, though he didn’t plan to stay that long. Nobody would notice if the apartment gained two additional occupants.
The boy was exhausted enough that he didn’t argue when the Soldier carried the girl up the six flights of stairs himself. She was starting to come around, shifting and frowning in her sleep. The Soldier was glad they would be safely inside before she woke fully. He still didn’t know what made her dangerous enough that Hydra had kept her under sedation.
By the time the Soldier handed the girl to the boy and unlocked the apartment door, his right hand was shaking. Sinking into the Soldier mindset allowed him to lock away pain and fear and anything else that might compromise the mission, but it came with a cost. It couldn’t be sustained indefinitely. The Soldier needed to rest.
He ushered the boy inside and bolted the door. The boy looked around the apartment, eyes uncertain, and set the girl down carefully on the floor. When the boy opened his mouth, the Soldier held up a hand with one finger raised. Wait.
The Soldier removed his weapons and stowed them in their cases. He set his mask and goggles and earbuds aside. He took off his boots.
The Soldier stood down.
Barnes blinked and swallowed. As the Soldier mindset receded, he became aware of the ache in his shoulders and back, the sting of his healing scalp wound, the nausea churning his stomach.
The kid--Jesus, he’d found two kids locked up in a Hydra basement, fuck--started to say something, but Barnes brushed past him and jogged to the bathroom.
The toilet seat was already up. Barnes fell to his knees and heaved until his stomach was empty even of bile.
"Are you okay?"
Barnes weighed exhaustion against disgust as he considered resting his forehead on the edge of the toilet bowl. Disgust won, and he sat back on his heels instead. He turned his head far enough to look at the boy standing in the bathroom doorway.
"Peachy," he rasped. He wasn’t used to having company during his post-mission freakouts. If he'd been alone he would have stripped by the front door so he could just roll his body into the bathtub to hose off, but he hadn't wanted to undress in front of the teenagers. He was still pretty fuzzy on the rules of being a person, but don't traumatize children with your horror show of a body seemed like common fucking courtesy. “This happens every time.”
He realized his mistake as the silence stretched.
“Every time you...blow up a building?” The kid sounded like he was trying very hard to be open-minded. “Is that, like, your hobby?”
That was an unexpectedly complicated question. Barnes didn’t feel up to answering it while his mouth still tasted like puke.
He dragged himself upright, leaned his elbows on the sink, and stuck his whole head under the tap. It wasn’t as good as a shower, but at least this way blood wouldn't dry into brittle mats in his hair.
The boy was gone from the doorway by the time he turned the water off.
Was this a hobby? Barnes didn’t think so. Hobbies were supposed to be fun. There was a sense of satisfaction that came with completing a mission, sometimes, but it was the satisfaction as much as anything that left him sick and shaking after.
Hobbies were optional. This was survival. Barnes had known right from the start that if he tried to run, tried to hide, Hydra would never stop coming after him. He needed to go after Hydra first, needed to destroy the Chairs and kill the Handlers he’d been programmed to obey, or he’d never be safe.
In a way he was grateful for the necessity. It meant he never had to know whether he would have gone after them anyway, for no reason other than bloody vengeance.
There were some things he didn't want to know about himself.
This way it was self-defense, or something close enough. He’d scraped together new rules of engagement since slipping Hydra’s leash. A soldier could kill other soldiers in wartime, and this was nothing if not a one-man war.
The mirror was dirty, but he could still see his reflection behind the grime. He met his own eyes. “Your name is James Buchanan Barnes.”
This was as much a part of the post-mission ritual as puking his guts out, and only slightly more pleasant. He’d recited his name over and over when he’d first been captured, with his rank and serial attached, for all the good it had done him. Enough time in the chair and he’d forgotten all three.
He had no rank or serial now, not after being abandoned by the country that spawned him, but he’d clawed his name back.
James Buchanan Barnes. The name hurt like too-tight skin. But it was his, and like fuck would he give it up again.
It was a long time before Barnes left the bathroom.
The girl was awake when he came out. She and the boy were sitting on the floor, because there was nowhere else to sit, because the apartment didn’t have any furniture.
Shit, he didn’t have any furniture. This was a base of operations, not a fucking bed and breakfast. He had more grenades stashed in here than he did blankets. What the hell was he doing bringing two kids home with him?
Breathe, Barnes. This wasn’t his first time looking after teenagers. Some of the Army recruits he’d worked with had joined up at 18, and he used to babysit Becca when she--
Barnes smothered that line of thought like pinching out a candle wick, quick enough that it barely had time to sting.
The point was, he was a highly-skilled operative with mission-relevant training. He could handle looking after two teenagers until he found a way to get them safely back home.
Plus he was probably the world’s foremost expert on getting dicked around by Hydra, so hey, they had something in common already.
“What are your names,” he said, too abruptly, only then realizing he’d switched to English at some point.
“I’m Pietro, and this is Wanda, my sister.” Pietro paused, then prompted, “This is the part where you say your name.”
He’d used several different names on the rare occasions when he needed to supply one, none of them his own, which is why it surprised him to hear himself say, “James.”
“Nice to meet you. Thanks for the, you know.” Pietro made finger guns with his hands, his face a blend of bravado and gratitude.
Barnes looked away. It was extremely uncomfortable to be thanked for something he’d done as the Soldier. The Soldier’s actions had only inspired appreciation in his handlers, before.
“No problem.” Barnes nodded at Wanda. “You okay?”
“Yes?” She hadn’t meant that as a question, Barnes was pretty sure, but that was how it came out. In better lighting it was easy to see how unhealthy they both looked, with deep shadows under their eyes from stress or sleep deprivation. How long had they been kept in that windowless basement?
Triage, Barnes. One problem at a time. Getting them the fuck out of the Hydra base, check. Field medicine, probably unnecessary now that they were both awake and talking, but he’d have to keep an eye out for injuries they might be hiding. That left water and food.
“You hungry?” Barnes tried to remember if he had any food in the safehouse besides off-brand energy bars. He had a vague conviction that growing teens needed vegetables. There wouldn’t be much available at the one convenience store in town still open at this hour, but he could probably manage cabbage and potatoes--
“So what now?” Pietro blurted. “What’s going to happen to us? Who do you work for? What do they want, what are you going to--”
Wanda smacked his shoulder and he shut up. They both watched Barnes with wide eyes, obviously braced for violence.
Barnes took a slow breath in and stepped back until he was against the far wall. He sat on the floor, legs folded, hands loose on his knees. The path from the teens to the door was wide open.
“You can leave any time you want,” he said. “I’m not going to stop you. I’m not working for anyone. Hydra is still out there, but if you have a safe way to get home, go for it.”
Even if they didn’t have a safe route home, they might prefer to take their chances on their own rather than stay with the metal-armed murder machine who’d blown up a building a few hours ago. Barnes would understand.
Wanda braced her hands on her knees, fingers digging in hard. “We don’t have a home to go to.”
“Then you can stick with me until we figure something out.” Barnes knew he wasn’t the best person to look after two teenagers, but Christ, anything had to be better than just dumping them out on the street.
The siblings had a rapid conversation conducted solely through meaningful looks. They weren’t running away, but they weren’t relaxing, either. They needed time to think, and a chance to talk without him listening in.
Barnes stretched his arms before he got up, telegraphing every movement. “I’m going to get dinner, be back in an hour. There’s bottled water in the blue duffle. Bolt the door behind me.”
Wanda spoke when Barnes was in the doorway. “Hydra,” she said, her voice hushed. “They had you, too?”
“Yeah,” he said. She didn’t say anything more, and after a few moments he closed the door behind him.
He left without looking back, but he couldn’t stop himself from lingering at the bottom of the staircase until he heard the door bolt slide safely home.
When he came back, a paper bag of groceries propped on one hip and a plastic bag with secondhand clothes dangling from his wrist, the door was still locked from the inside. Barnes felt an unexpected surge of relief. It didn’t mean they were staying, necessarily, but at least he’d get to feed them before they left. He’d gotten ingredients for soup. It had been a long time since he’d last cooked, but it was hard to fuck up soup, or so he kept telling himself. If all else failed they could just eat the energy bars.
Barnes fished his keys out of his pocket and tapped his knuckles against the door. “It’s me,” he called, before unlocking the door and kicking it shut behind him.
Pietro and Wanda were standing in the kitchen, backs to the wall near the window. They relaxed visibly when they saw it was just him. Well, that was a start--at least Barnes scared them less than some unknown intruder.
“Thank you,” Wanda said before he’d even set the groceries down on the kitchen counter. “I didn’t say it before, so. Thank you for getting us out of that place.”
“It’s fine,” Barnes muttered, hiding his face in the paper bag. “I’m gonna make dinner. If you two want to get cleaned up, the hot water lasts about twenty minutes. I got some sweats and t-shirts if you want a change of clothes.” There hadn’t been a clothing store open, so Barnes had broken into the secondhand shop a few blocks over. He’d grabbed the basics in a few different sizes and left some folded bills under the cash register as an apology. There hadn’t been many shoes to choose from, so Barnes erred on the side of too big rather than too small. The kids were just going to have to wear two or three pairs of socks until they managed to find boots that actually fit.
Pietro peeked into the bag of clothing, then broke into a grin. “Dibs on the Dog Cops shirt.”
Wanda tried, unsuccessfully, to snatch the shirt out of Pietro’s hands. “I want first shower, then.”
“Race you for it,” Pietro said, and blurred out of sight. The bathroom door slammed shut.
Barnes converted his startled bark of laughter into a cough. Wanda gave Barnes a cautious smile.
“I apologize for him.” She pulled out the remaining clothes and wadded the bag up into a tiny ball, clenching and releasing her fists to make it crinkle. “I would like to blame it on whatever Hydra did, but sadly, his personality has always been like this.”
“Let me guess,” Barnes said. “You’re older.”
“By nine minutes. It makes a great deal of difference.”
“I’m sure. How old are you guys?”
“Sixteen.” Her face blanked and she moved across the apartment to the window. Okay, not ready to answer questions. Barnes could at least wait until after dinner.
Sixteen years old, shit. They would need to go to school, they--
“Can I help?”
Barnes looked up, surprised.
Wanda bit her lip, but stood her ground. “I’m not a very good cook, but I can chop and stir.”
“Yeah, sure.” Barnes looked down at the KA-BAR he’d been using to slice an onion on the bare counter. She probably wouldn’t cut herself with it, but it was so obviously designed for violence that he couldn’t bring himself to hand it to her. “You wanna wash the potatoes?”
It had been a long time since Barnes had shared an innocuous task like cooking with another person, but he fell back into the rhythm of it quickly enough. Wanda washed each vegetable in turn and passed them to Barnes to chop, and soon they had a pot of soup bubbling on the stove, filling the kitchen with the smell of fried onions and browned beef.
They talked a little while they worked. Wanda's English was slower and more polished than Pietro's. Pietro had a bizarre hint of a flat midwestern accent, like he'd learned most of his English from watching sitcoms. Barnes carefully avoided asking about Hydra or anything personal. Mostly they talked about food.
“My grandmother made something like this.” Wanda leaned over the pot and inhaled appreciatively. “But not with potato, she made matzo balls with the beef inside. It was my grandfather’s favorite. She used to--”
Barnes looked up. Wanda was leaning hard against the counter, her face pale.
“Wanda?” Barnes set down the ragged towel he had been using to wipe the counter. He wanted both hands free to catch her if she was about to pass out.
“I just remembered something. Realized something. When they took us--when they started--”
Barnes kept still while Wanda took a few deep breaths. He looked out the window, eyes unfocused, until she regained some composure.
“The scientists were so pleased when the experiments worked. They had failed before, many times. But they worked on us.” Wanda’s mouth twisted. “There was a man there, a man they called the Baron. He was in charge. He never talked to us, but we heard him sometimes, talking to the scientists. Blood will out, he said.”
“What did he mean?”
“Our grandparents.” Her chin went up. “I think he meant our grandparents, our mother’s mother and father. They were targeted during the Holocaust, her for being Romani, him for being Jewish. They were sent to the same camp. And after the camp was liberated, they were sent to foster families in the same village. Their own families didn’t survive.”
“I’m sorry,” Barnes said quietly.
Wanda didn’t seem to hear him, lost in her own thoughts. “Our grandfather was an engineer. He used to make marvelous toys for us when we were small. The way he worked with metal, nobody else could do it. And our grandmother--” Wanda fell silent again, a deep frown creasing her forehead.
Barnes waited, letting Wanda sift through memories in silence. She was obviously holding back details, thinking through other clues that she wasn’t ready to share. Barnes wasn’t going to pry.
“They never talked about what happened in the camp,” she said finally, “but I think--I think something like this happened to them, too.”
Barnes felt sick. It was horrifyingly plausible--some Hydra scientist doing research on Nazi experimentation on prisoners could have dredged up details on Wanda and Pietro’s grandparents, realized whatever experiments they had been subjected to had been successful, and decided to try their luck with the original subjects’ descendants.
Wanda’s eyes were distant. “I think our grandmother knew. The way she would look at us, sometimes…she knew there was something different about us. Maybe she would have told us, if she had lived long enough.”
“Told us what?” Pietro asked, materializing in the kitchen so suddenly that Wanda jumped and Barnes automatically grabbed the knife on the counter and flipped it into a combat grip.
“Stop doing that,” Wanda snapped at him. She picked up the remaining pile of clothes, snatched the towel from around Pietro’s shoulders, and stomped off to the bathroom.
Pietro watched her go, a mystified expression on his face. “What did I do?”
Barnes just shook his head and went back to wiping the counter.
The kitchen didn’t have any bowls, but some previous tenant had left behind a couple spoons and a collection of chipped mugs. Barnes rinsed the dust out of three mugs and filled one of them with soup. He took a cautious sip, then a bigger one. It was nothing to write home about, but it was hot and filling. He’d had much worse.
“Grub’s up.” Barnes filled the other two mugs and passed them to the twins. There were no chairs and no table, so they ate on the floor. Wanda sat closest to the radiator, her damp hair curling in the warm updraft.
The tacit understanding he and Wanda had not to ask about anything personal was apparently not shared by Pietro. Barnes had barely taken two sips of soup before Pietro launched into a rapid-fire interrogation.
“Are you like us?”
“Like you how?”
Pietro gave him an impatient look. “Do you have powers?”
“What can you do?”
I can kill people before they even know I’m there. Barnes kept his reflexive grimace off his face. “I’m strong. Fast, not as fast as you, but faster than anyone else I’ve met. My senses are good. I heal quick. I know you’re fast--very fast,” Barnes added drily, before Pietro could say it himself. He turned to Wanda. “What about you?”
Wanda didn’t say anything, but after a moment Pietro’s spoon, suddenly haloed in a red haze, floated out of his soup and landed on his nose. Pietro batted it away with a show of annoyance.
“Nice,” Barnes said approvingly. He understood why they kept her sedated; he could think of a dozen ways telekinesis could be useful in an escape. Wanda ducked her head, but she was smiling a little behind her mug.
“Did Hydra give you your powers?” Pietro was trying hard to make his questions sound casual, but his knee was jiggling up and down and he didn’t look Barnes in the face when he asked.
“How long did they have you?”
There was a faint ringing in his ears. Barnes focused on the warmth of the soup mug in his hands, the grit of the dirty floor under his feet. “Years.”
“Fuck. Sorry, James.” Pietro reached out and awkwardly patted Barnes’ shoulder. “They only had us a couple months, and that was shitty enough.”
Barnes was more surprised by the rough attempt at comfort than he should have been. It embarrassed him, but he felt warmed by it anyway. “It’s okay. I got out.”
“How did you get away?”
Darkness unrelieved. Air thick with ash and dust, coating his tongue, stinging his eyes. The dense silence after a blast. After the screaming had stopped. The rest of the team lying dead around him, the Asset waiting in the dark to join them, waiting and waiting. The body ejecting the shrapnel. The bleeding slowing. The bleeding stopping. Thirst. Rubble shifting and a crack of sky shining through. Climbing out. Walking to the drop point. Falling down. Walking. Falling down. Staying down. Children patting his face, sharp excited voices, bringing water. Water, cool and slick and sweet. Following the children when they tugged on his hands. The horror on their mother’s face. A blanket; a kindness. The mother calling a three-digit number and speaking in a low voice. Terror, sudden and absolute, at the thought of being found. The blanket dropping off his shoulders. Running.
Barnes kept his face blank. “Luck.”
Wanda sucked in a fast breath through her nose, looking a little nauseous. Maybe the soup was too much, too fast? God only knew what Hydra had been feeding them.
“Did they come after you?” Pietro asked.
In other words, will they come after us? Barnes didn’t know for sure, but he could guess. Hydra hated losing assets.
Barnes looked at the twins, at their huge anxious eyes staring back at him, and thought, over my dead fucking body.
“Listen,” Barnes said. “And pay attention, okay?”
Wanda and Pietro leaned forward a little, intently focused on him.
Barnes dredged up memories of his old Sergeant voice, trying to conjure the authority without the volume. The last thing they needed was some asshole shouting at them, but he needed them to listen. “Fuck Hydra.”
Wanda blinked. Pietro gave her an uncertain glance before looking back at Barnes.
“Fuck Hydra,” Barnes said, with more emphasis. “They don’t get to do this. They don’t own you. They want you scared, so get mad instead. Repeat after me: fuck Hydra.”
“Fuck Hydra,” they chorused.
They were more confident the second time. Barnes grinned his approval and repeated with conviction, “Fuck Hydra.”
“Fuck Hydra,” the twins yelled.
“Good,” Barnes said. He drained his soup mug and got up to refill it. “Who wants seconds?”
Barnes took a three-minute shower and got dressed in his slightly-less-dirty change of clothes. As much as he wanted to let the kids rest, he knew none of them would sleep easy this close to the base where they’d been kept, and what Wanda had pieced together--blood will out--worried him. They hadn’t just been swept up in some random snatch and grab. Hydra had targeted Pietro and Wanda specifically, and they would try to recover the twins if they knew they were alive. Staying nearby would only make it easier for Hydra to find them.
The twins didn’t argue when Barnes said it was time to leave. By the time Barnes had stowed his gear in the car and wiped all trace of their presence from the safehouse, Pietro was dead on his feet, the adrenaline crash hitting him hard. He sprawled across the backseat and was asleep before Barnes had driven ten miles.
Wanda sat in the other backseat, tolerating Pietro’s feet on her lap. She started out hypervigilant, freezing in place whenever headlights from a passing car swept by, but as the miles stretched uneventfully she slumped down and rested her head against the window. Barnes settled into the comfortable rhythm of night driving on an empty road.
There was another vehicle behind them, far enough back that Barnes could barely pick out the boxy shape of the van behind the glare of its headlights. It was painted white with some kind of logo on the side. It could belong to a plumber, maybe, or an electrician.
Barnes eased off the gas, nice and gradually. The van crept closer before its own speed steadied. It was keeping pace, not passing or falling behind.
It could just be a tired driver using Barnes as a pacer car. That was a possibility.
But Barnes hadn’t stayed alive this long by being optimistic.
"What's wrong?" Wanda was awake and alert, watching him in the rearview mirror.
"We've got a tail." Barnes estimated the van’s distance from the car and felt uncomfortably boxed in. The next exit wasn’t for dozens of miles, and there were woods on either side of the road. Maneuvering would be tight. If he slowed down to lure the van in closer, he could pull a U-turn and haul ass in the opposite direction before the van had time to turn, but if whoever was in the van fired on the car with the kids in the backseat--
The sharp bang of a tire blowing was his only warning before the car swerved out of control. Barnes braced himself against the dashboard and tried to steer into the skid. Momentum and an uneven patch of road sent the car briefly airborne. It rolled once, the roof of the car fracturing and splintering inward, before slamming back down on its three good tires. The airbag deployed just in time to keep Barnes from cracking his breastbone on the steering wheel.
Sniper. The front left tire had blown. There hadn’t been debris on the road, Barnes would have seen it, which that meant there was a sniper somewhere in the trees.
There was a long groan from the backseat. The air filled with the scent of hot copper. Barnes’ heart rate soared, adrenaline spiking.
Barnes dug his metal fingers into the airbag’s stitching until the seams gave. He shoved the half-deflated bag out of his face and unbuckled his seatbelt, spinning onto his knees to look into the backseat. “How bad?”
“Fuck,” Pietro hissed. He had both hands wrapped around his thigh, bracketing a shard of plastic that had gouged deep. Red was welling up between his fingers. Too slow to be a nicked artery, but not good.
The van screeched to a halt behind them, its stark white headlights silhouetting Pietro and Wanda against the rear windshield. Men kitted out in full body armor leapt out of the van. Barnes shoved the twins’ heads down, but the volley of fire he was expecting never came.
Instead he heard the crackle of a megaphone, and a single word. “Жела́ние.”
Panic roared through him, white and all-consuming. He was an idiot, he was a fucking idiot, because his earbuds were in his gear bag in the fucking trunk.
Barnes leaned past Pietro and fumbled open the back door closer to the woods. “Run! Go, right now, fucking run.”
Pietro let go of his leg. An instant later he and Wanda were gone. They reappeared on the road, Pietro doubled over with Wanda half-supporting him, then flickered out and in and out again. Pietro’s leg was slowing him down. Instead of just vanishing, they appeared in flashes like a bad stop-motion animation.
They were still too fast for the agents fanning out of the van to target. The agents moved in on the car instead, circling to cover both sides of the vehicle.
Barnes kicked out the driver’s side window, then opened the passenger’s side door and dove out while the agents were focused on the wrong side of the car. Running for the woods would just get him shot in the back. He rolled under the car instead.
It was an old, shitty car, chosen because it was unlikely to be missed. The rusted frame wouldn’t shield him for long. Barnes shifted onto his back and kicked up hard, hard enough to jolt the whole car forward. The metal undercarriage dented around his boot.
The third kick put his whole foot through the undercarriage and into the bottom of the trunk. Barnes crawled forward and reached into the jagged gap with his left arm, shoving the felt lining out of the way. His fingers closed on the strap of his gear bag.
Barnes pulled the bag forward and scrabbled for the zipper. The fabric tore under his fingers and he snarled, fumbling for the right pocket. Something cracked under his metal fingers. He twisted and shoved his right arm into the gap instead, ignoring the sharp edges digging into his armpit.
Something metal rolled across the asphalt towards the car. Grenade. Barnes lunged forward to grab it with his left hand only to watch the sphere of metal unfold and latch onto his wrist. Magcuff, he realized, but too late too goddamn late.
The cuff wrenched his metal wrist up. It hit the bottom of the car with a reverberating clang and stuck fast, pinning him in place.
Barnes strained to reach the trunk, to go for his earbuds, a flashbang grenade, anything, but the magcuff held. He was trapped. Pinned down on his back like an overturned turtle, listening to the slow shuffling steps of hostiles coming closer.
What scared him more than anything was how little damage he’d taken. They had to know he would heal from anything short of a direct killshot, so why hadn’t they just fired on him?
“Bозвращение на родину.”
The kids, he thought, they were going to send him after the fucking kids, and that was enough to send him into a full panic.
Fuck staying under cover. He swung out from under the car and planted his feet against the pavement, straining against the magcuff with the full force of his body. The agents training weapons on him were yelling commands, easy to ignore, unlike the words coming from the megaphone. Each new trigger word fell on Barnes like a hammer blow, thrumming through his nervous system and leaving him trembling.
The cuff popped free. Barnes tumbled over in a backwards somersault and rolled to his feet.
The agents facing him backed up as one. Barnes lunged towards the closest agent, hoping they’d shoot him, hoping that would at least slow him down long enough for Pietro and Wanda to get--
Barnes sank like a stone.
Inexorable as gravity, the Asset rose in his place.
The Handler came into view, rounding the side of a white van. He was carrying a megaphone and a small red book. His mouth was smiling and his eyes were sharp. “Cолдат?”
“Я готов отвечать.”
“Jesus,” the closest agent said. He was breathing rapidly and training a semi-automatic assault rifle on the Asset. The agent’s aim was wavering due to his shaking hands and poorly balanced stance. The Asset felt the faintest twinge of professional disapproval. “I almost shit my pants. Brock, you crazy bastard.”
“Told you it would work.” The Handler approached and gave the Asset’s shoulder a proprietary pat. The Asset held very still. “It’s not as good as a full wipe, but it’ll keep until we can get him on ice.”
One of the agents reached through the shattered window of the car’s front door and took the keys from the ignition. He opened the trunk and whistled. “Fuck, how’d he not break his foot? He kicked right through the car.”
“Jesus,” the closest agent repeated. “That’s so fucking creepy. Why’s he just standing there?”
“No one’s told him to do anything different.”
“You sure this is a good idea?”
The Handler snorted. “Oh, you want to go after the Baron’s pet freaks yourself? Be my guest. Asset, eyes forward.”
The Asset turned. The Handler tossed a ripped duffle bag at his feet. “Suit up.”
The equipment in the duffle bag was strange. The Asset recognized the general design of everything, but there were many small changes. The leather vest was lighter and bent differently, the armored plates in a different configuration. The mask didn’t pinch. The knives had different grips. Still, every piece of equipment fit like it was made for him. Everything was perfectly maintained, except the goggles, which had one lens spiderwebed with cracks. He left the goggles in the gear bag.
The Asset hesitated over a pair of small earbuds. They weren’t part of his standard kit, but he knew he had used them before. They were important in some way he couldn’t remember.
“Not those,” the Handler said, and took them from the Asset’s palm. The Asset felt an absurd urge to snatch them back. He kept his hands flat and motionless at his sides, afraid they would betray his unruly impulse. Disobeying a Handler would result in a severe correction. Corrections were to be avoided whenever possible.
“Your mission is to retrieve these two targets, alive, no permanent damage.” The Handler held up two pictures. They showed an unsmiling adolescent girl and a scowling adolescent boy in front of a wall painted institutional white. “Make sure the boy can’t run. The girl is the highest priority. Knock her out before you bring her back. Do you understand?”
“Repeat your orders.”
The Asset dutifully repeated his orders to capture and subdue. The other agents had slowly gathered around during the mission briefing, all of them watching the Asset, most with hands on their weapons. The Asset kept his eyes on the Handler, as was proper, but he was aware of the short hairs on the back of his neck prickling as the agents crossed through his blindspot.
“Good boy.” The Handler pointed to the side of the road, where trampled vegetation marked the start of a trail. “Sic ‘em.”
The forest was full of rail-thin fir trees, closely packed enough that the Asset lost visual contact with the road before he had gone fifty feet. The trail he followed was easy to spot but difficult to understand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, walking closely together in short steps. Sometimes there was a single set of footprints gouged deeply into the thick layers of accumulated pine needles--one person running fast, or while carrying a heavy weight.
The sharp resin smell trapped under the dense branches combined with the tang of blood. At least one of the targets was already injured. As the scent got stronger, the Asset softened his footsteps, until there was barely a whisper of air to betray his presence.
He heard the targets before he saw them. They were breathing harshly, moving slowly. The Asset circled them at a distance until he was above them on the sloped ground.
“Should we keep going?” A soft voice speaking Slovak. The female target.
“I don’t know.” The male target, voice strained. “I didn’t hear any shooting. Do you think they--”
“He’s here,” the female target said suddenly. She moved closer, until the Asset could see her clearly through gaps in the trees. Unarmed, five foot six, civilian. Frightened. “James? What’s wrong?”
No permanent damage covered a broad range of scenarios. The Asset didn’t know the target’s capabilities; best not to rely on enhanced healing or durability. He would do as little damage as possible while still fulfilling mission parameters.
The Asset drew his handgun and fired at the target’s foot.
The shot plunged deep into the ground, sending up a plume of dirt. The female target was gone. The Asset listened. Both targets were suddenly further away, but not out of the range of the Asset’s hearing.
“What the fuck,” the male target said.
The Asset drew closer. He reholstered his gun and switched to a knife instead, leaving his metal hand free to block or swing. If the targets could move that fast, guns left too high a chance of hitting a vital organ accidentally.
The targets weren’t speaking, but the male target was gasping in short, pained breaths. The sudden burst of speed seemed to have damaged him further.
“Shhh!” The female target moved, her footsteps muffled by the forest undergrowth. “There.”
A red cloud roiled through the trees ahead and engulfed the Asset. Instantly he ducked behind a stump and held his breath. He expected to feel burning in his eyes, the effect of some gas or toxin, but his skin was unaffected. Instead his head started to throb. There was something tugging at him from the inside, something digging and pulling like fingers searching and scrabbling and he wanted it out--
The red haze vanished. For long moments, the Asset waited in his crouch. When he took a cautious breath through the mask, the air didn’t scorch his throat. No damage sustained, he thought, but that wasn’t quite right. The inside of his head felt bruised.
"That's not James," the female target said. "They did something to him. They erased him."
"Shit. Wanda, we have to go. You didn’t see him fight before, trust me, we have to go now," the male target said. The male target's speech was labored, slurred. Somewhere deep in the Asset's mind, that set off warning bells. The boy wasn't supposed to talk so slowly.
"We can't just leave him, not like this. I think--I think I can bring him back."
The male target hissed through his teeth. "Better be quick, then."
Footsteps drew nearer. The Asset stepped back cautiously, giving ground.
When another wave of red rolled towards him, this one twice as high, there was no place to dodge. The Asset crouched and braced for impact. He was swamped, dizzied, by the red haze that filled his vision.
The voice arrived in his brain without passing through his ears. The Asset flinched and tried to steady his breathing. Malfunction.
James, stop, the voice said. We are not your enemy.
The Asset ignored this input as irrelevant. Retreat had gotten him nowhere, had only left him open to whatever attack was now invading his thoughts. He rose from his crouch and stalked towards the targets.
They had taken refuge in a depression in the hillside, standing side-by-side in a tiny clearing with a boulder at their back. The boy was bleeding steadily from a wound in his thigh. His pallor was deepening, his breathing thready. The Asset only had to wait for him to exhaust himself.
The girl was more troublesome. She stood with legs braced, one hand flat against the boulder for balance, the other extended towards him. A vivid red glow, bright as fire in the dark forest, veiled both her and the boy. Cautiously, the Asset circled, leaving a gap of several feet between himself and the targets. The Asset knew enough to be wary of any threat he couldn't evaluate.
"Who the fuck is James." The Asset was startled to hear the words, shocked to find he himself had spoken them. He...there must have been a malfunction with his equipment. Some careless technician must have supplied a defective mask. He should have noticed before. This mask let him breathe too easily.
The Asset flicked a knife at the girl’s outstretched hand, more to test her reflexes than because he expected it to hit. The knife flew back at twice its previous speed and embedded itself in the trunk of a nearby tree.
Projectiles not advised.
The girl twisted her fingers, sending out another pulse of red. It hit the Asset square in the face.
The female target’s face wavered, blurring into the face of a small girl with curly brown hair scowling up at him. But Bucky, you promised--
The mirage dissolved. The Asset blinked and saw only the auburn-haired teenager watching him intently. Her eyes widened. "Bucky."
The Asset opened his mouth. Closed it. The name echoed in his head, Bucky Bucky Bucky. It was--destabilizing. He wasn’t injured but his breathing was rapid, his pulse soaring. He drew a second knife, needing the reassurance of a weapon in his hand.
"Bucky, this isn't you.” The female target was speaking English. Her accent wasn’t American. Why did the Asset expect her to be American? “You know this isn't you. This is what they tried to make you, but you got out. They don’t own you, remember? Fuck Hydra."
"Fuck Hydra," he repeated automatically.
“Seriously, fuck Hydra so much,” the boy wheezed, hands around his leg as he edged closer to the girl. “Holy shit this hurts.”
“Quit walkin’ on it then, dumbass,” the Asset ordered. No, that wasn’t--he shook his head hard, put his right hand in his hair and yanked. The knife in his metal hand wavered.
The girl lowered her hand slightly, the red glow dimming. “James?”
“I--fuck.” Barnes flung the knife aside. He didn’t trust himself to hold a weapon, not when the kids were the only potential targets in sight. Not when Hydra had just wound him up and sent him off, their toy soldier once more, with just ten words. Shit fucking shitfuck. Walk it off, Barnes, you’re not out of the woods yet. “Pietro, hold still, you’re making it worse. Wanda, you all right?”
The red glow died abruptly. Wanda sagged against the rock, obviously exhausted. “I’m not hurt.”
“Quit moving, kid.” Barnes grabbed Pietro, who was still trying to fucking hobble his way back to the front lines, and made him sit down. The gash in his leg was long, but only deep for a few inches. Staunching the bleeding there was the first priority. Barnes tore a strip off the bottom of his shirt and twisted the fabric into a makeshift rope.
The Hydra agents would notice that the sounds of fighting had stopped. If they fanned out in the woods ahead of them, with the sniper still in position by the highway, Barnes and the twins would be all too easy to sweep up. And if they said those goddamn words again--
“We need to get back to the road,” Barnes said. “We need their van to get out of here. Wanda, you got any juice left?”
“Good.” Barnes tied the improvised tourniquet around Pietro’s thigh. Pietro was rigid and shaking with the effort of staying quiet, his skin damp and clammy. “I’ll carry Pietro. Once we get to the road, you find the sniper in the trees. Confuse him, knock him out of his perch, do whatever you can to take him out of play. I’ll handle whoever’s left. You and Pietro just get to the van. Clear?”
Wanda pushed off of the boulder and squared her shoulders. “Find the sniper. Get to the van.”
Barnes heard the crackle of a radio in the distance. Agents were creeping into the woods on either side, moving to box them in.
He looked up at Wanda. “One more thing. If they get into my head again, drop me, fast as you can. I don’t care how. Drop me, grab Pietro, and get to the van. Don’t wait for me. You understand?”
“Yes.” Her voice was unsteady, but her hands weren’t. “I understand.”
Pietro hissed as Barnes maneuvered him onto his back, but wrapped his skinny arms around Barnes’ shoulders and held on tight as Barnes stood. “Worst. Piggy-back ride. Ever.”
“You watch too much fuckin’ TV.” Barnes rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck. “Let’s go.”
They paused at the tree line while Barnes took stock. Two of the Hydra agents had stayed by the road, their black uniforms stark against the white of the van, the van’s headlights cutting a path through the night. One agent leaned against the van while the other paced and kept his eyes on the forest, his gaze sweeping right past Barnes and the twins huddled in the dark. The rest of the Hydra agents were nowhere to be seen.
Barnes slipped Pietro off his back and shifted him to lean against Wanda instead, Pietro’s arm over her shoulders and his bad leg close to her side. Barnes nodded at Wanda.
Wanda took a deep breath, raised both hands, and unleashed another burst of red.
On the other side of the road, there was a sudden crashing noise. Wanda gave Barnes a thumbs up--sniper down. The twitchy Hydra agent spun around and nearly shot blindly into the trees, but his partner said something sharp. The agent held his fire.
Barnes stepped into view, face blank, pace measured as he approached the van. Both agents straightened, wary but not alarmed. Not yet.
"Soldat?" the senior agent said. He was ostentatiously calm, hand resting on his rifle stock, nowhere near the trigger. Setting a good example for the twitchy junior agent.
A fragment of memory surfaced. There, you see, he's perfectly tame. Observe--
Barnes punched the senior agent in the jaw. He swung his left arm up to knock the rifle out of the junior agent's hands before the agent had time to panic. A kick to the junior agent's knee and an elbow to his head left both agents unconscious on the road.
Barnes pulled open the van’s back doors, ducking back instantly in case the missing agents were lying in wait inside, but the van was empty.
"Now," Barnes shouted.
Wanda and Pietro broke cover and made a beeline for the van. Wanda was nearly running, her jaw tight and her arm wrapped around her brother's back, holding him upright. Pietro kept up as best he could. Barnes circled around them, watching the treeline and waiting for the other shoe to drop.
There. Strips of deeper black moving behind the thin shadows of tree trunks. Barnes fired without hesitation, dropping into a crouch as someone screamed and someone else shot back. He rolled away from the van, drawing fire away from the twins.
Wanda shoved Pietro into the back of the van first. Older, Barnes thought, and deflected a bullet with his metal hand. Another burst of fire and the agents in the trees went quiet. Barnes rose from his crouch and ran, zig-zagging back towards the van.
Three shots slammed into his back. The pain of it was distant, known but not felt, but the force hit him like a bowling ball between his shoulderblades. His feet went out from under him.
Barnes caught himself with his metal hand before he face-planted onto rough asphalt. His chest hit the ground hard and off-center, and oh, there was the pain, forcing the air out of his bruised lungs.
Wanda was out of the van and running towards him. Wrong way, kid. Barnes wanted to tell her to turn around, to get into the driver’s seat and get Pietro out of there, but he didn’t have the breath to speak.
Wanda stepped over Barnes and planted her feet. Barnes shifted onto his back--ow, fuck--and picked his head up to face the threat.
Two agents crouched behind the wreckage of Barnes’ car. A third was down on one knee in the street, his shoulder-mounted RPG aimed at the van.
Pietro was in the van. Barnes’ gun hand was up and firing without conscious thought. The agent’s body slumped forward, the RPG slipping off his shoulder and tumbling down, but the agent had already fired.
The missile arced high, its aim true, and Pietro was in the van.
Wanda screamed, a sound of pure primal defiance, and shoved both palms forward. The missile slammed into a wall of red and rebounded into the cluster of Hydra agents.
The explosion was deafening. Wanda crossed her arms in front of her face and a veil spun into place around them, protecting Barnes at her feet and the van at her back.
The Handler--no, not a handler, no more fucking handlers--the agent in the middle caught the brunt of the blast, going down hard under a wall of fire. He didn’t get back up.
Barnes let his head fall back. The van was untouched. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, hail fuckin’ hallelujah.
These kids were terrible for Barnes’ blood pressure.
"James?" Wanda crouched over him, hands hovering over his torso like she was afraid touching would make it worse.
Snap out of it, Barnes, you're holding up evac. Barnes levered himself up with his metal arm. "Gimme a hand up."
“You’re hurt,” Wanda said, but she let him grab her arm and pull. Barnes set his teeth against the scream that wanted to escape as he hauled himself upright.
"Kevlar vest." Every word sent a new twinge of agony through his chest, but it was worth it to see the relief dawning on Wanda's face.
"I thought they’d killed you."
"Just cracked some ribs.” Cracked, broken, close enough. They’d heal. Barnes lurched towards the van, leaning on Wanda a little less with every step as his lungs remembered how to take in air.
Whichever Hydra agent had been driving had left the keys in the ignition. Barnes sent a brief but heartfelt prayer of thanks for the reliable stupidity of junior agents.
“Wanda, get us out of here.” Barnes climbed into the back of the van and swung the door shut behind him while Wanda ran to the driver’s seat. Pietro was on the floor with his hurt leg stretched out straight.
The van lurched into motion so fast that Barnes had to grab Pietro’s shoulders to keep him from sliding bad-leg first into the back doors. Pietro’s flailing elbow almost clipped him in the balls. Barnes folded his knee up protectively.
“Sorry!” Wanda called.
“Speed is good.” Barnes braced one boot against the bench seat opposite and shifted Pietro to a less precarious grip. “Just don’t crash.”
Barnes pulled a supply crate out from under the bench seats and took rapid inventory. He ignored the spare ammunition and zeroed in on the medical supplies. One medical kit was stamped ASSET in bold red letters--Barnes gritted his teeth against a surge of unwanted memories and ignored that kit entirely. He dumped one of the standard kits out onto the floor of the van and picked out the supplies he would need to treat Pietro's leg.
Wanda's hand went to the back of her neck. Her fingers flashed red. When she brought her hand back down, a tiny chip of metal rested in a drop of blood on her palm.
“Tracker?” Barnes asked.
"Yes. It’s how they found us."
Barnes scooted backwards and pulled Pietro half into his lap, bringing him within Wanda’s reach. "Get Pietro's."
Pietro yelped as Wanda pulled his chip. She rolled down the window and threw them both onto the road.
“Are there more?” Barnes asked.
“I don’t know. The sniper only knew about those.” Wanda shot him a guilty look. "James?"
"I don't have a driver's license."
There was silence for a moment before Pietro started giggling. Barnes felt on the verge of hysteria himself. He met Wanda's eyes in the rearview mirror and gave her an encouraging OK sign. "You're doing great, kid. Just get us to the next town and I'll take over."
It took twenty minutes for Hydra to scramble a second assault team and send them after the van.
It only took nineteen minutes for Barnes and the twins to find a new stolen car, torch the abandoned van in an empty parking lot, and get the hell out of dodge.
The whum whum whum of approaching helicopters faded into silence as they left the town in the rearview mirror.
Barnes stopped three more times to swap cars and muddy their trail as they took a meandering path through the outskirts of Sokovia. At their last stop he bought a crisp long-sleeved collared shirt and charcoal slacks. One hasty shave in a gas station bathroom later and he looked every inch the long-distance commuter, right down to the bags under his eyes. Wanda even put his hair up in a bun for him so he looked more hipster yuppie than murder grunge.
He probably should have cut it short, but he'd never cut his own hair before and he was pretty sure he’d butcher it. A sloppy haircut wouldn’t fit the persona he was trying to build. Besides, it was his hair. Barnes would rather punch his way through border security than let Hydra keep dictating his fashion choices.
Pietro would spend the border crossing lying on the floor of the backseat covered by a gym bag and a few towels. Pietro had not been happy about this plan.
"If Hydra has contacts on border security, they'll be looking for a man with a teenaged girl and boy," Barnes had told him. "It's too risky for us to fit that profile. I'd disguise you as a girl if we had a wig and a dress that would fit your shoulders, but we don't, so we have to work with what we've got."
Pietro had sighed mournfully. "I bet I'd look good with a bob cut."
"Maybe next time," Bucky had said.
For now, Pietro was zonked out and snoring in the backseat. They were killing time in a parking lot until the morning rush hour started. They would hit the border crossing at the busiest time, when border guards would be trying to get people through as fast as possible. Wanda, slumped in the passenger's seat with a gray hoodie covering her hair and her eyes glued to a cellphone, would be nearly invisible.
Wanda had followed Pietro’s lead and tried to nap while they waited, but Barnes could tell she hadn’t fallen asleep. He sat quietly, eyes constantly checking the windows and mirrors, and tried not to fidget. After half an hour Wanda sighed and put her seat back up.
“It’s all right,” Wanda said. She turned so she was facing Barnes, hands gripping her knees. “We can talk about it. I know you want to ask.”
Fuck it, there really wasn’t a tactful way to quiz someone about their superpowers. Barnes was feeling more sympathetic to Pietro’s interrogation approach with every passing second. “You’re a psychic."
"Yes. But I swear," she said, rushing through the words, "I never did anything like they did, I never did anything to your mind. Not until you were--" She cut herself off.
"Until I was attacking you," Barnes finished for her. "I know, kiddo. Believe me, I can tell when someone's been in my head."
Wanda winced, and he wondered exactly what she’d seen when she’d searched through his memories. “I’m sorry.”
Barnes licked his lips, suddenly nervous, but he managed to say what he’d spent the last few hours thinking about. "Could you do it again?"
For a second she looked completely shocked, but Wanda was smart. She caught up fast. "You want me to undo what they did? Take out the words?"
"I'd like you to try. If it wouldn't hurt you, or--look, I don't know shit about how this works."
"Me either.” Wanda looked down at her lap, then lifted her chin. “But I can try. I can learn."
Barnes had no doubt of that. He didn’t know the full extent of Wanda’s powers, but he knew that Wanda had been holding back, right up until she’d seen Barnes go down. Under all that reserve, Wanda was seething with power.
There was no way he could drop the two of them off in some foster home. Even if Hydra never went looking for them--and that was a big if--the twins wouldn’t get what they needed from people who had no idea what they could do, no idea what they had survived. They were going to have to stay with Barnes, at least until they were old enough to take care of themselves. Barnes would need to be...not a parent, exactly, but a guardian. A protector. He’d need to give them stability, support, keep them in food and clothing and--
“Fuck,” Barnes said aloud, “I’m gonna have to get a job.”
“You just figure that out now?” Pietro said unexpectedly.
Barnes turned around to look at Pietro. His eyes were still closed, but his fingers were starting to drum on the backseat. “How’s the leg?”
“Morphine is awesome. Is it time to go yet?”
“Just about.” Barnes nodded at the gas station they were parked in front of. “Last chance for snacks or a bathroom break.”
Pietro just kept lounging, stretching out while he still could, but Wanda went inside to get a drink. Barnes got out and paced around the car a few times, shaking out his legs. He watched the road, keeping an eye on the number of cars passing. Almost time. They would cross the border and vanish into Eastern Europe, leaving Hydra with too many possible trails to chase them all. Barnes would get the kids settled and then--what?
The Winter Soldier had been focused on a singular campaign: the destruction of Hydra. That wasn’t going to be enough, not now that he had the twins to look after. He would need to find paying work.
Not as an assassin. Not that, not killing on someone else’s orders, never again. But he’d been used as a bodyguard for the Hydra higher-ups sometimes, and he was trained to find flaws in the best security systems in the world. He could monetize those skills.
Hell, he already had a brand name. The Winter Soldier. Hydra might have made him, but they hadn’t been able to keep him. Barnes had taken his own name back; why not also reclaim his most fearsome title?
Barnes had never dared to imagine a life for himself without Hydra in it. When it had just been his own life he was neglecting, he hadn't even noticed. Now his sense of the future was unfolding, a little painfully, like blood returning to a limb that had long since gone numb.
It seemed like tempting fate to imagine a world in which he was free, in which the Winter Soldier became just another tool for him to use, another way to salvage something good out of the shit Hydra had dropped him into. He was still afraid of losing himself.
But now, if he lost his way, he had people to call him back.
“Yo, James!” Pietro was hanging out of the window. Wanda was already back in the passenger’s seat, rummaging through a bag of gas station snacks. “Are we going or what?”
"Yeah," Barnes said. He slid into the driver’s seat and found a smile to give the twins. He couldn't remember the last time he'd smiled; it wasn’t as hard as he would have thought. "Let’s go."